»Intelligence starts with improvisation.«

Yona Friedman

Blog Venice 2014

Crowdsourcing History

No modern architecture in Latvia?

  • Gas Station in Ogre, built in 1965, architect unknown. (Photo: Zigm?rs Jauja, NRJA) 1 / 13  Gas Station in Ogre, built in 1965, architect unknown. (Photo: Zigmārs Jauja, NRJA)
  • The Latvian contribution to the 14th Architecture Biennale in Venice is a forest of paper sheets hanging from the ceiling ... (Photo: Andrea Avezzù / la Biennale di Venezia) 2 / 13  The Latvian contribution to the 14th Architecture Biennale in Venice is a forest of paper sheets hanging from the ceiling ... (Photo: Andrea Avezzù / la Biennale di Venezia)
  • ... accompanied by a quiet, yet disturbing soundscape. (Photo: Andrea Avezzù / la Biennale di Venezia) 3 / 13  ... accompanied by a quiet, yet disturbing soundscape. (Photo: Andrea Avezzù / la Biennale di Venezia)
  • The installation is basically made from the 489 pages of the catalogue, mixing images of post-war modernist buildings in Latvia with slogans and quotes from the essays in the book. (Photo: NRJA) 4 / 13  The installation is basically made from the 489 pages of the catalogue, mixing images of post-war modernist buildings in Latvia with slogans and quotes from the essays in the book. (Photo: NRJA)
  • Slogans like “Modernism is sexy”, “Modernism is inhuman” or “How does it feel to live in identical places?”  reflect a variety of – more or less – popular opinions around modernism. (Photo: NRJA) 5 / 13  Slogans like “Modernism is sexy”, “Modernism is inhuman” or “How does it feel to live in identical places?”  reflect a variety of – more or less – popular opinions around modernism. (Photo: NRJA)
  • (Photo: Florian Heilmeyer) 6 / 13  (Photo: Florian Heilmeyer)
  • The exhibition is based on open-source research by NRJA which encouraged Latvians to send in photos, stories and impressions of modernism in Latvia. (Photo: NRJA) 7 / 13  The exhibition is based on open-source research by NRJA which encouraged Latvians to send in photos, stories and impressions of modernism in Latvia. (Photo: NRJA)
  • The research turned up a wide variety of buildings, like this former factory “Radiotehnika” in R?ga. (Architects and year unknown, photo: Igors Nerušs, panoramio.com) 8 / 13  The research turned up a wide variety of buildings, like this former factory “Radiotehnika” in Rīga. (Architects and year unknown, photo: Igors Nerušs, panoramio.com)
  • The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, designed by Gun?rs L?sis-Gr?nbergs and Dzintars Driba and built in 1970 in R?ga. (Photo by P.Alun?ns, itl.rtu.lv) 9 / 13  The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, designed by Gunārs Lūsis-Grīnbergs and Dzintars Driba and built in 1970 in Rīga. (Photo by P.Alunāns, itl.rtu.lv)
  • Railway Station in J?rmala, Latvia. Designed by Ilya Yavein and built in 1977. (Photo: J?nis Vilni?š, lv.wikipedia.org) 10 / 13  Railway Station in Jūrmala, Latvia. Designed by Ilya Yavein and built in 1977. (Photo: Jānis Vilniņš, lv.wikipedia.org)
  • Restaurant J?ras P?rle in J?rmala, Latvia. Designed by Josifs Goldenberg, built in 1965 and demolished in 1994. (Photo by Mechanik, wikimapia.org) 11 / 13  Restaurant Jūras Pērle in Jūrmala, Latvia. Designed by Josifs Goldenberg, built in 1965 and demolished in 1994. (Photo by Mechanik, wikimapia.org)
  • NRJA say they’ve only just started this discussion and they hope to continue to get as much feedback on it as possible... (Photo: NRJA) 12 / 13  NRJA say they’ve only just started this discussion and they hope to continue to get as much feedback on it as possible... (Photo: NRJA)
  • ...in order to initiate a thorough, broad reflection on and debate about modern heritage in their country. The exhibition will be shown in Latvia next year. (Photo: NRJA) 13 / 13  ...in order to initiate a thorough, broad reflection on and debate about modern heritage in their country. The exhibition will be shown in Latvia next year. (Photo: NRJA)

Responding to Biennale Director Rem Koolhaas’ general question on how modernity was absorbed in different countries, the Latvian Pavilion curators came up with an original answer: “There is no modernist architecture in Latvia” – a statement that raises both eyebrows and questions.

The exhibition was curated by the young Latvian architecture office NRJA (No Rules Just Architecture). uncube talked to Zigmãrs Jauja, a member of the NRJA collective, who says they won the national contest for the Latvian contribution mainly by holding up a neon sign with their slogan in which the word “no” blinked on and off – turning it into a question.

So is there modernist architecture in Latvia or not? “Of course there is”, says Jauja. “But with our claim we wanted to point out that there has been almost no research or evaluation of modern architecture in Latvia, especially not from the time when Latvia was under Russian occupation after the second world war. There is, for instance, not a single book dedicated to modern architecture in Latvia, but you can find dozens about our cities, castles, Art Nouveau or individual architects. Post-war modernism in our country is still very much linked to that time, which makes it hard for many people to evaluate it from an unprejudiced point of view.”

So behind the provocative slogan of the exhibition's title, NRJA’s claim is rather that the story of Latvian post-war modernism is as yet unwritten. They understand their exhibition to be a pioneering project aimed at kickstarting a discussion and evaluation on modern architecture in their country. “We have this ambigious historic context”, says Jauja, “we have inhabited buildings from that period, some architects and planners of that time are still alive, yet we have a huge problem because we just don’t discuss what to do with the built heritage of that time. There is the only [modernist] building listed as a State Architectural Monument, which is a family summer house in Pabazi by Modris Gelzis from 1959.”

NRJA collected not just well-known Latvian icons of modern architecture, but widened their net to include all modernist buildings in Latvia, asking for suggestions, images and impressions from fellow Latvians via the internet. “If are to take this issue seriously, we need to address as many people as possible. So we are happy not just to bring this exhibition to Venice, but also to show it in Latvia afterwards. That is also why we created a Facebook page and why you can download our entire catalogue for free.”

Within the 489-page-catalogue are images of all the modern buildings NRJA collected, plus interesting essays by Vladimir Belogolovsky, Juris Dambis and Artis Zvirgzdins, as well as some short interviews with architects about modern architecture in Latvia and what to do with its heritage.

So where does this project go next? “We have marked out the fields of future research, brought them together, and now we're putting this out into the public realm hoping that there will be a reaction”, says Jauja, “be it positive or negative, we need more and more people to examine, discuss and think about modern architecture in Latvia. We hope this exhibition can start a process.” Only then, say NRJA, will Latvian modern architecture really come into being.

– Florian Heilmeyer

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